More than maple

Large American elm in Northern Hardwood Forest in the Cadillac area.

For many people who live up north, the “woods‘ are just the “woods.‘ Often it is not until the beginning of October that we marvel at the beauty of the fall colors of our area. Central to these colors of autumn is the sugar maple tree.

Like the lead actor or actress in a play, sugar maple has brilliant colors indeed, but it has many co-stars that have colors of their own. Sugar maple is one of many tree species that comprise a forest community or type that naturalists and natural resource professionals call “northern hardwoods.‘ This particular forest community is as complex as it is beautiful. It doesn’t just grow up like a red pine stand, it matures with age, and with age, the species change. If you are fortunate to own woods of northern hardwood trees, it is important to understand the natural processes that make these forests so special, as well as the unnatural forces that are harming these forests.

The Wexford and Missaukee Conservation Districts are hosting a Forest Field Day on Saturday, Sept. 29, to present to landowners and loggers both, ways of management that will keep your northern hardwoods healthy and yes, profitable for generations to come.

The northern hardwoods is a community of species unique to the north. There is a “central hardwoods‘ as well as a “southern hardwoods.‘ To make things sound complicated, you can find the “central hardwoods‘ forest in southern Michigan. But in the Cadillac area we have only northern hardwoods. In this forest we can have sugar and red maple, basswood, white ash, northern red oak, pin oak, American beech, ironwood, elm, paper birch, yellow birch, aspen and black cherry. These species do not all have to be present. Some are only present early in the life of this forest community, and others are found only later. The key to this progression is how much shade a particular species can grow in. Managing northern hardwoods is about managing shade.

What makes managing northern hardwoods so difficult today is the near total elimination of two major species from the forest because of the introduction of foreign pests. The Emerald Ash Borer has eliminated ash trees from the forest, and a tiny foreign scale insect carrying a foreign fungal disease has/is eliminating American beech. Beech Bark Disease does not eliminate the beech tree, but subsequent beech trees will sprout and grow with the disease and the large beautiful beech trees that we see today will be a thing of the past.

The challenge to owners and forest managers alike is how to respond to losing two major species from the northern hardwood forest community. The challenge to the hardwood lumber community is how to maintain economically viable with fewer species to market.

For both owner and logger, the key to the future is tree quality. A high-quality tree is a healthy tree. A healthy tree can live longer, and a high-quality tree is beautiful to look at, and can be valuable when it is mature. Poor quality trees can grow large and live just as long but they are not worth much after living for decades.

Because of the loss of ash and beech in this forest community, many people fear that these forests will become a mono-type; pure stands of sugar maple. The strength of this forest community is in its diversity. Northern hardwoods can, and should, be managed to increase the number of species found in any particular woodlot. Management of this forest community can be called both art and science. Because management of this community is about managing shade, timber harvesting is often the tool to bring about that management. Harvesting, when it is done well, can improve the species diversity as well as the growth and quality of the remaining forest.

All these factors, and much more, will be discussed at the Sept. 29 Forest Field Day. Participants will be given tools to evaluate their own forests.

This Field Day will be held on private lands located six miles north of Lake City, and will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There is a $20 charge for this workshop and includes a box lunch. This northern hardwood management field day has been approved for four hours of MI SFI continuing education credits. Pre-register for the workshop is required by calling the Wexford Conservation District office at 231-775-7681 ext 3 or emailing District Forester, Larry Czelusta at


Larry Czelusta is the Forester for Wexford and Missaukee Counties. For more information about trees and forestry, contact Larry by phone, email or stop by the office at the USDA Service Center at 7192 E. 34 Road (Boon Road) in Cadillac.